Tuesday, 27 January 2015

The Spongers (1978)

"If you're poor you're to blame. If you're on welfare, then you're fiddling"

Shame on the BBC for not repeating this. The reason they won't is because they know it's too relevant, too controversial to broadcast it again. A screening would provoke anger and see the scales drop from the eyes of so many as to what kind of society we find ourselves in. If they aired this right now, the forthcoming election in May would certainly have a very different result that's for sure.

The Spongers, Jim Allen's 1978 Play For Today, details the plight of Pauline, a single parent (superbly played by Christine Hargreaves) to four children, the eldest of whom is a 14 yr old with Down Syndrome, residing in care. During the Silver Jubilee celebrations of 1977 we see Pauline unable to cope on the pittance given to her in benefit, the bailiffs are at her door determined to take her furniture away, the DHSS refuse to help her any further, Social Services' hands are tied, and finally her 14 year old daughter has been transferred from her happy residential home and is forced to live in an utterly unsuitable old people's home because it is deemed 'in her best interests' by the powers that be who have never even met her - in reality, it's a cost cutting exercise thanks to central government stripping mental health care down to the bone. You know right from the off that this isn't the kind of film to have a happy ending, but nothing will prepare you for the sucker punches the play gives you at each and every turn and its ability to stay with you long after you've witnessed it.

Her father, played by the great Peter Kerrigan, perhaps sums it up best when he recalls the hardships of the Great Depression in 1933 and how, after the Labour landslide of 1945 "I never thought we'd see those days again now" (and equally his Blackstuff co-star Bernard Hill, on fine fiery form as a community worker, gives us the fine summary of the general consensus towards the disadvantaged in our society as quoted at the top of this review) His complete bewilderment and horror to find those days returned in the fag end of a disastrous Labour government is all too palpable and our hindsight allows us to know that the horrors did not end there thanks a vicious Concervative government coming to power two years later. In 2012, thirty five years on from the setting of The Spongers, the country celebrated yet another anniversary of the reign of Queen Elizabeth II; the Diamond Jubilee. As part of the 'celebrations' the private contractors whom the DWP employ to help the unemployed back into employment, education or training forced around 80 people to work for nothing during the Thames flotilla pageant as stewards to gain precious experience. Should they have declined, they would have lost their benefit and had sanctions imposed upon them. When those who arrived in London queried where they would sleep for the night, they were told to sleep on the streets (read about this shameful conduct here) Three years on and and benefit sanctions still prove a very real threat, designed to agitate claimants into withdrawing their claim, saving the govt money and reducing the unemployment figures (which you can read about here) whilst mental health services continue to be cut leaving modern day Pauline's under the same precarious position depicted here (more details here) The contemporary resonance felt in watching The Spongers today utterly sickens me. Like Peter Kerrigan's character, after 1997 Labour landslide, I had once thought those days were all over too.

I apologise that this isn't much of a review. If you watch The Spongers (and it is available to watch in full for free on YouTube) you'll feel just as angry and impassioned I am sure. If you do not, then I fear there's something wrong with you, or you're a Tory - not that the two aren't mutually exclusive. All I will say is that this film is extremely naturalistic, well directed by Roland Joffe in his debut, brilliantly written by the late great Jim Allen and produced by the brilliant Tony Garnett, the man who also helped bring Cathy Come Home to our screens a decade earlier. That that film is held as the benchmark of socially conscious film making and respected as such, whilst The Spongers remains its suppressed poor relation despite its same quality does, I think, speaks volumes.

To get the BBC to consider repeating some of these classic Play For Today's please sign the petition I started here

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